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Archive for October, 2013

The Pitcairn Islands are a British Overseas Territory, comprising of four small islands in a remote area of the Pacific Ocean. The permanent population of around 50 people all reside on Henderson Island. It is most famous for being the last settling point where mutineers on the Bounty settled in the 1780s; the current inhabitants are direct descendants of these hardy few.

At the 3rd International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Marseille, France, this week and on the PEW Charitable Trusts website, is the proposed Pitcairn Marine Reserve- which plans to establish one of the World’s largest protected marine reserves. Based on its 2012 report, on the economics of the proposed Pitcairn Reserve, eftec has contributed to this discussion.

The conclusions from the report helped lay the foundation for the current proposal, Protect Pitcairn: An Underwater Bounty.

In our report, we devised and compared 3 development options open to Pitcairn.

  1. The Baseline: where the current situation continues (no marine reserve and no fishing licenses).
  2. Marine reserve: the waters up to 200 miles off-shore, equating to 836,000km2 (or the size of Alaska and California combined) is established as a reserve and only local artisanal fishing is allowed.
  3. Exploitation: no reserve is created. Instead, a fishing license regime develops, thereby allowing commercial access to Pitcairn’s waters.

Currently, the islanders fish in a traditional fashion for subsistence and local trade, and there are very few commercial fishing vessels in the proposed area due to its remoteness.

The report estimated that if Pitcairn were to open their waters to fishing, and sell fishing licenses, it could only generate around $(US) 32,000 p.a.

eftec’s report argued that it is likely that the benefits of establishing the marine reserve would far outweigh this revenue.

The proposed marine reserve would significantly enhance Pitcairn’s image on the global stage. The resulting increase in tourism, particularly in numbers of cruise ships visiting, could generate significant revenue for such a small economy. Furthermore, branding itself as one of the World’s largest marine reserves would enable the island to increase the price of existing products.

As well as monetary benefits, there would be substantial non-market values from establishing the marine reserve. The National Geographic expedition in 2012 claimed that the ocean around Pitcairn is how it was a thousand years ago, with pristine reefs and clear waters, visibility is 75 metres- the highest in the Pacific. The team’s 16 underwater cameras, each covering a few square metres for 5 hours, saw 57 species of fish- 8 of which were new to science! Imagine how many more are lurking in the 836,000km2 of water that could be protected.

Therefore, the unexploited marine ecosystem may provide essential services of great value to the World, beyond what we can currently monetise. The islanders voted unanimously in favour for the ‘Protect Pitcairn: An Underwater Bounty’ to be presented to the British government for approval.

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You might have noticed my absence from the blog recently; I have been adventuring around far-flung pastures learning about environmental policies in foreign lands.  As part of this I’ve been attending a few events, including the Malaysian launch of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), led by Jeffrey Sachs himself.  I had a few words to say to them at the end about a certain discipline they failed to utilise.  But never mind about that right now, I wanted to talk about something else…

On Sunday morning I tagged along with the good folks of MESYM (a Malaysian environmental networking platform) to attend a Bloggers workshop hosted by the Malaysian Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) about Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariffs (RE FiT) in Malaysia.  I’ll write in more detail about the contents of the workshop in my next post, but for this post I wanted to talk about the actual workshop, which I thought was a really interesting idea.

We were all paid RM100 (about £20) in supermarket/department store vouchers each to go to the workshop.  Now considering the workshop was on Feed-in Tariffs in Malaysia (and provided a 5 star hotel buffet lunch) I would have happily gone along without being paid anyway, despite the 9am start time on a Sunday morning.

Our goodybag! Lots and lots of literature, notebooks, badges, a lunchbox (?!) and vouchers!

But we also got this goodybag! Lots and lots of literature, notebooks, badges, a lunchbox (?!) and vouchers!

However it quickly became clear that my fellow blogger attendees might not have felt the same way.  Casual questioning of various individuals on the day about what they mainly blogged about yielded answers such as “Usually myself.  Also Koreans (pop stars), I love my Koreans!” and “Mostly about myself.  And also about the kids I work with” and “The KL Stock Exchange”.  So, an interesting group of bloggers to invite to a workshop on Feed-in Tariffs.  I suspected that my friend and I, with existing environmental interests, were flukes.  This was quickly confirmed when we had a quick introduction to climate change followed by some questions, where we learnt that only about half the room had ever heard of renewable energy, and only 3 people, including me and my friend, had heard of Fukushima.

But this made the whole workshop a far more interesting strategy from SEDA.  We originally thought they were reaching out to the political, environmental, and social bloggers (and their readers) who were probably already thinking about these issues, to try and convince them of the validity of the FiT.  However by reaching out to these other bloggers, who had wide readerships but ones who generally didn’t read the newspaper and probably had not thought much on the issue, they were reaching an entirely new audience and, hopefully, getting them to think about renewable energy and the FiT and to view these issues from angles they probably would not have been exposed to if not for the workshop.

By SEDA’s own admission during the morning presentation it quickly became clear what the main issue was, for the general public which SEDA were obviously trying to reach.  Malaysia has an artificially low fixed electricity price (thanks to subsidies to the tune of RM20 billion, or £4 billion) from the government.  The Feed-in Tariff scheme is funded by a 1% renewable energy charge on every householder’s bill above 300 Kwh (RM77 at the current rate), and this was set to rise to 2% earlier this year, but elections happened later than usual and this has been postponed.  Added to this, the national electricity provider is hiking up the price by another 1%, so all in all householders are seeing an electricity price increase of 3%, of which 2/3rds are thanks to SEDA.

Given the UK’s own electricity price woes this might seem a laughable thing to get upset about, however Malaysians have taken their cheap fixed price electricity as a given and are very much unhappy about this price increase.  Added to this are the recent petrol subsidy cut, and a healthy suspicion of the government (Malaysia ranks as 54/176 on the government corruption perceptions index), leading the public to wonder whether the SEDA 2% is really just going to line the pockets of government official.  The workshop organisers showed us some newspaper articles and screen captures from Facebook to demonstrate some of the public displeasure.

A slide of complaints. Copyright SEDA Malaysia

A slide of complaints. Copyright SEDA Malaysia

So it’s no wonder SEDA are trying to get the ordinary public on their side through ordinary bloggers.  But for this, a large education effort had to happen, in order to get these untrained bloggers to understand what the FiT was and why it was needed.  For a 4 hour workshop the scope was huge: a quick introduction to climate change, an explanation of renewable energy and how they fit into Malaysia’s commitment to cutting GHGs (40% by 2020 from 2005 levels), an explanation of the Feed-in Tariff with some background context and how the 1% (soon to become 2%) electricity price levy fits in, a quick foray into solar-PV and how together with FiT it ‘democratizes energy’ (more in a later post!), energy efficiency, break-off sessions to go into more detail about various renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency and finally a question and answer session with the SEDA Chief Executive Officer and Chief Corporate Officer.

The workshop setup. Copyri

The workshop setup. Copyright: SEDA Malaysia

Energy efficiency break-out session: the cost of non energy efficient lightbulbs vs energy efficient ligthbulbs

From the energy efficiency break-out session: the cost of non energy efficient lightbulbs vs energy efficient ligthbulbs

We were also told, to make sure their massive effort was not wasted, that we would be paid for each blog post we wrote on the topic, up to 5 a month.  I thought about revealing the price here but I sympathise with SEDA and don’t want it to get picked up that this is what their 1% is getting spent on.  But I would say that the payment per blog post is not an insignificant amount, and with 5 blog posts a month this should be enough for a Malaysian to get by without any extra work, including renting a modest room.  Or it would be, if it was paid in cash, which I’m not too clear about as yet.  5 blog posts on one topic a month sounds like a lot though, and eventually one might run out of things to say.  However, the workshop organisers promised that further workshops would be run including a chance to go out and see a biogas plant, giving more fodder for more blog posts.

At first glance it might seem like a lot to spend on an untested strategy, however SEDA remarked that they had originally used television advertising, but their advertisements were run in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep, so this might be a more cost-effective strategy.  Bloggers are also uniquely able to tailor their posts to their readership and, crucially, answer comments from them.  We were also encouraged to “write whatever you want”, which makes me less wary of the thought that we might be part of a SEDA astroturfing operation.  I mean to indicate whenever I write a ‘sponsored’ blog, and there didn’t seem to be any efforts to ask bloggers to hide this.

After the event, during our delicious lunch, I spoke to a few of my blogger attendees to gauge their reaction to the workshop and the payments.  Everyone I asked said they would definitely write about it, but a few were still uncertain about convincing their readership about the 1%.  They told me that they had been to similar events for the entertainment industry, but never one for government policy.  I took a few blog URLs down and will be checking them to see what they write and how this strategy pans out.  I thought the event was well run given the scope and time, and I understood all that was spoken about, however I am well aware that I was one of the very few with previous interest, let alone education and experience in this field.  So it would be very interesting to see how much other bloggers took in and what kind of angle they will approach this from.

We’ve heard of astroturfing before, but, given what I saw and experienced, I think it would be unfair to put that label on this strategy.  I feel like SEDA were genuinely trying to educate blogger attendees and equip them with the background knowledge in order to write about FiT in their own words, rather than to sway them to their side of the issue.  I wonder if a similar kind of strategy could be used by the UK government, or indeed whether it has been done before.  Perhaps there might be outrage at the thought of paying bloggers for social media exposure but I can’t help but feel that it can’t hurt to get people who have shown their ability to hold a large readership to write commentary on policies and bring these to the masses who would otherwise have no knowledge or opinion.

In my next post I’ll actually talk about the Malaysian Feed-in Tariff, but in the meantime I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have on this blogging workshop.

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